Meridian Innovation is driving the new era for thermal imaging sensors.
Meridian Innovation catalyzes a new era for thermal imaging sensors, where the technological advancements in this space are driven by social and civic needs for the first time, as opposed to military and niche industrial applications being the major driver of the past. This breakthrough is brought about by Meridian’s R&D, and mass manufacturing of very cost-effective, high-resolution thermal imagers, entirely based on CMOS technology.
In the context of converging technologies, which enables ubiquitous connectivity, artificial intelligence (AI), edge computing, and Internet of Things (IoT), Meridian’s thermal imagers create a myriad of possibilities for adding value to products and services in the consumer and commercial space. This, in turn, enables deep market penetration, with the potential of a transformative affect as large as the one we now see and experience owing to the transitioning from charge-coupled devices (CCD) to CMOS visual imaging sensors just a few decades ago.
Meridian’s current generation of sensors operate in the long-wave infrared (LWIR) range—from 8 to 14µm wavelength—which corresponds to passive emission of electromagnetic radiation from all objects. The company’s patented technology allows for pixel miniaturization while maintaining high sensitivity and thus delivers the scaling benefits traditionally associated with CMOS technology. This allows miniaturization of the form factor at module level, which is not possible with alternative thermal sensing technology based on thermopile. On the other hand, Meridian’s sensor chips are readily produced in any CMOS factory—thus can meet high volume manufacturing at low cost, which has not been possible with the high-end micro-bolometer thermal imagers, due to the use of non-standard materials, like vanadium oxide.
Headquartered in Singapore, and with major R&D and manufacturing operations in Singapore, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, Meridian was established in the fall of 2016, and demonstrated its successful pixel and 5000-pixel focal point array (FPA) in 2017 and 2018, respectively. The teams launched mass-production and shipping to customers despite the global pandemic challenges in 2020, and this year are transitioning to a larger, 8-inch wafer-size with their second generation of thermal imaging technology, promptly scaling down the pixel size from 45µm to 35µm while doubling the sensitivity and reducing the module size.
Meridian Innovation Chief Executive Officer Leow Chon Hock with an 8-inch thermal imaging sensor wafer (Source: The Business Times)
Overall, Meridian’s team features more than 10 different nationalities from four continents and has spent over 150 man-years of semiconductor R&D, system hardware design, firmware and software design, as well as radiometry and sensor calibration. The company recognizes that unlike image analytics in the visual spectrum, thermal image analytics is largely unexplored field in the commercial and consumer space. Meridian works in close liaison with customers and partners to establish a variety of reference HW and SW designs, also becoming a turn-key solution provider for thermal and mixed-mode (thermal and visual) systems.
Not surprisingly, Meridian has already garnered support from important corporate investors and Tier-1 OEM partnering companies, as well as a few awards in recognition of the company’s vision, know how, and execution capabilities.
Recently, Meridian has been honored at the EE Awards Asia 2022 for its CMOS MEMS Thermal Imaging Sensor Product, SenXor, and was recognized as the “Most Investable Start-up Team”. Now on its second year, EE Awards Asia has received more than 400 entries from 150 companies vying for 22 categories.
Earlier this year, Meridian signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with German automotive parts manufacturer Continental AG to explore the use of Meridian’s thermal imaging solutions for in-car safety monitoring. Besides this large automotive market, other companies in different market sectors have approached Meridian for potential design-in into baby monitors, elderly care, security, AIoT and home appliance applications using Meridian’s SenXor.
Other significant awards and achievements for this year include:
The Business Times – Thermal sensor startup strikes while market is hot https://www.businesstimes.com.sg/events-awards/emerging-enterprise/mobile-spotlight/thermal-sensor-startup-strikes-while-market-hot
Hong Kong ICT Award 2022- Smart Home (Smart Living) https://smartliving.ictawards.hk/winners/2022-winners/?lang=en
Meridian Innovation Chief Operating Officer Hasan Gadjali (middle) with Hong Kong ICT Award (Source: HK ICT)
Best Innovation Award at the 2022 Emerging Enterprise Award ceremony – Singapore https://www.businesstimes.com.sg/events-awards/emerging-enterprise/ap-technologies-lumos-labs-speedoc-are-top-winners-emerging
“Our unique and patented thermal imaging sensors SenXor use only CMOS processes and materials, with a sustainable advantage in term of design performance based on the standard CMOS geometric process and low-cost scalable mass production fabs,” says chief operating officer and co-founder Hasan Gadjali. “Meridian’s innovative thermal imaging technology will be a catalyst for growth in emerging markets that are waiting for the right price-performance sensor to be available for the mass market.”
Meridian’s thermal imaging solutions use the same infrared heat detection seen in fever-detecting scanners during the SARS and Covid-19 pandemics. There are many applications in electronics that promise to make our lives more comfortable and safer, and Meridian’s thermal imaging camera products hold to such a promise, by having been used to help the management of Covid-19 by monitoring and detecting anyone with fever in a crowd. For more information, the EE Times article “Thermal Imaging Sensors for Fever Detection” (https://www.eetimes.com/thermal-imaging-sensors-for-fever-detection/ ) provides a more comprehensive description on how Meridian’s SenXor uses LWIR radiation in this context.
The application of visual sensors in smart home security system is already well accepted in the market. Other sensor technologies will be incorporated into the home automation and smart homes. Thermal Imaging sensor is one such technology, with the aim of preventing fire hazards, aiding home chefs, monitoring human occupancy without sacrificing privacy, measuring our comfort level and remotely ensuring the well-being of infants & the elderly. Meridian’s sensors are also incorporated into solutions for temperature controls of smart home appliances such as microwave ovens. The “Thermal Imaging for Smart Homes” (https://www.eetimes.com/thermal-imaging-for-smart-homes/) describes how Meridian’s SenXor is used to generate rich, unstructured information, upon which live thermal image analytics are applied to obtain structured information (for example, not just “there are people at the doorbell” but how many and who).
Meridian Innovation Products and Applications (Source: Meridian Innovation)
Meridian is rapidly growing, with the strong support of more than 20 customers and high-profile backers The company already provides engineering samples of its second-generation product, as of this August, which is a key driver for the projected revenue of $15 million by fiscal year 2024, and the company is meant to become profitable by that time.
“The second-generation sensor is starting to get a lot of traction from these large customers, because we’re hitting a price point that is so sweet for them to integrate into their product. They are starting to believe our story – that with the right price point and the right performance, they can add more features that they were not able to, in whatever they’re doing,” says chief executive and co-founder Leow Chon Hock.
Meridian has already accumulated $18.3 million in investments from Seeds Capital PTE. LTD. (part of EnterpriseSG), Best Ever PTE. LTD. (Investment arm of Rayprus/Foxconn), PLANETSPARK PTE. LTD. (Excelpoint Technology Ltd.) and Creative Technology Ltd. The founder and acting CEO of Creative Technology himself – Sim Wong Hoo has also invested in Meridian, as has Excelpoint’s CEO Albert Phuay. The company already negotiates with further strategic investors that can facilitate Meridian to scale up his operations and develop market and capacity for millions of sensors a month.
Overall spending so far is close to $20 million, and the plan is to use another $10 to 15 million on its next generation product and capacity expansion, including operating costs such as business development, software, manufacturing, and testing.
Meridian’s goal is to have a new product every six months to stay ahead of the competition. The company is targeting price sensitive end-market for thermal imaging modules roughly at about $10 per module. Those are higher-end, but not military-grade. Given the demand of large volume capacity, the “supply security” of Meridian’s products is clear advantage over competitors.
Meridian designs its thermal sensor solutions in-house, using the fabless semiconductor company model. Similarly, the module assembly, including die-attach, and lens-holder assembly, is also outsourced to partners who has proven, extensive experience, facilities and capacity.
Meridian holds nine granted patents related to its proprietary wafer-level vacuum packaging technology that is used in the manufacturing of the chip. Wafer-level vacuum packaging protects the sensitive focal point array (FPA) from the environment, maintains its sensitivity, and further lowers the cost of lens assembly and final module price. In particular, Meridian’s FPA and readout circuit are manufactured at the same time within a standard CMOS facility—this is in sharp contrast to microbolometers, where the pixels (non-CMOS, e.g. vanadium oxide) and the readout circuits (CMOS) are processed in separate fabs, which limits scalability in terms of manufacturing volume, as well as having negative impact on cost.
Meridian currently has 46 employees. Nearly half of the team is based in its headquarters in Singapore, where the chip R&D and finance is operated. Nearly as big is the Hong Kong office, where system hardware and software analytics developments are carried out. Expansion in Taiwan and mainland China is already happening both for marketing and customer support.
Meridian also has a presence in the United States, where both CEO Hock Leow and COO Hasan Gadjali are based for business development. The team in Singapore is led by Dr. Piotr Kropelnicki, formerly a scientist at the Agency for Science, Technology and Research’s (A*STAR) Institute of Microelectronics in Singapore, and actively collaborates with EnterpriseSG, universities, and fabs aiming not only to grow the business, but to also grow the environment and the interest of young people in becoming engineers and experts in semiconductors.